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THEY say there isn't a rivalry.

There are more than a dozen schools in L.A. County that teach fashion design, but Otis and FIDM, as the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising is known, are the biggest and the best. Both have main campuses downtown. Both get scouted by major design houses. Both have alumni whose work could be in your closet. Both offer courses you'd never see at another college.

Neither has a football team. But still, think of them as the USC-UCLA of apparel design — two cross-town campuses with distinct identities and cultures that have rising national reputations.

Part of the reason is "Project Runway," Bravo's popular reality show for aspiring designers (five candidates from FIDM; two from Otis. No winners from either). It has become the cable network's No. 1 show, and rained unprecedented attention on top fashion design schools. But …

"There isn't a rivalry," says Tonian Hohberg, founder and president of FIDM.

"No," says Rosemary Brantley, founder and fashion department chairwoman at Otis.

Still, both compete for the same pool of talented students, whose first questions must be: How do they stack up? What is the best place to study fashion design in the city?

Otis, founded in 1918, has the longest tradition in Los Angeles, though it launched its fashion program more recently, in 1980. FIDM opened its doors in 1969.

How easy is it to get in those doors? Much as "Runway's" Heidi Klum bids failed contestants "auf wiedersehen," so too do the admissions departments of these schools, who rigorously screen prospective applicants. At Otis, prospective students submit a portfolio (including a self-portrait), as well as transcripts, SATs and the other usual information. At FIDM, the selection process is more give and take, with an emphasis on interviews.

What's the admission ratio? Neither school will divulge the information.

Among those who are accepted, only the dedicated few earn the privilege to showcase their talent in school-sponsored fashion shows and with visiting industry leaders. At Otis, being in the top tier has another perk: the opportunity to work closely with high-profile designers, including Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein, Natalie Chanin and Behnaz Sarafpour.

This semester, Bob Mackie is the Senior Studio Mentor in a course emphasizing eveningwear. During his classroom visits, he counseled students on the art of fabric selection, the hazards of over-ornamentation and how to create runway drama.

"Faked is good!" he tells a student making leather armor. "It's fashion, not the real thing."

FIDM also emphasizes real-world training. This year, students worked with members of the Disney merchandise team on rethinking princess gear. Of course, they all designed new princess gowns.

Graduates of either school could write a thesis on the history of the tabard, but they're also landing jobs with firms such as Nike, Target and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Doing what, exactly? If you're from Otis, Brantley says, "Your first job will be assistant designer in a clothing manufacturing company — not retail, not patterns, not sewing."

FIDM grads could be cutting patterns, merchandising cosmetics or overseeing the international supply chain of a fashion company.

"We are an applied art school," says Susan Aronson, executive director of admissions. "We're here to create a résumé to make students marketable."

At Otis, a fashion design major earns a four-year bachelor of fine arts degree.

At FIDM, students graduate in two years, with one of a variety of associate of arts degrees that are developed to match industry needs, says Barbara Bundy, vice president of education. Students also can earn a second associate degree in a third year, and study, for example, footwear design; costume design for film, TV or theater; and even international manufacturing and product development.

Both schools are located in the heart of the garment industry in the fashion district, with easy access to fabric and trim stores and wholesale markets, side jobs in the industry and even well-stocked fashion magazine racks.

But the campuses are worlds apart.

In that aspect, FIDM wins hands down: modern, with a museum, bookstore, cafe and a store where retailing majors can gain experience. A recent addition is the "pool" study lounge — a padded, sunken pit surrounded by chaise lounges outfitted with laptop stands.

At Otis? Well, life isn't so good. Students commute between downtown and the main campus in Westchester. Worse: The downtown "campus" is the second floor of the California Market Center, a Spartan industrial space that feels as if you've gone to work already.

Still, with degree in hand, it's the Otis students who land the most notable jobs the soonest. The current class graduates next month; nine of last year's graduates landed assistant designer jobs with John Varvatos, DKNY, Nike, Theory, Isabel Toledo and L.A.'s Rozae Nichols, among others.

The March FIDM graduates have just started their job searches, and they're not all landing at high-fashion studios — more like product development at Guess, software design for Barbie at Mattel and, for graduate Justin Green, head of design at the not-yet-well-known L.A. contemporary firm Testament.

Give them all a little time, though, and someday that label in your collar may bear one of their names.


valli.herman@latimes.com*

OTIS VS. FIDM

Otis College of Artand DesignFashion Campus: The second floor of the California Market Center, 110 E. 9th St., L.A.; http://www.otis.edu .

Student body: 195

Cool class: Senior Studio I and II, taught by designers including Bob Mackie.

Tuition: About $27,000.

School uniform: Vintage meets H&M

Alums to brag about: Henry Duarte, Cynthia Vincent, Kristopher Enuke and Rod Beattie.

Hangout: Silver Lake's Red Lion Tavern and Cha Cha Lounge and, sadly, the Mart lobby's coffee shops.

School merch: Are you kidding? They make their own.

Catalog quote: "Trust yourself. Ask difficult questions. Learn to look."

Hazing: Junior and Senior Studio — this is when people drop out.

Prom night: Otis College of Art and Design Scholarship Benefit and Fashion Show, this year at the Beverly Hilton. $500 a ticket.

Extra credits: Ben Maltz Gallery, featuring exhibits such as "Through Prehensile Eyes," and other esoteric fare.

Dubious distinction: The hallways are plastered with portraits of model Peggy Moffat.

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Fashion Institute of Designand MerchandisingCampus: Four acres at 919 S. Grand Ave., L.A.; http://www.fidm.com .

Student body: 1,129 at the L.A. campus.

Cool class: Advanced Creative Design for Footwear.

Tuition: $20,160

School uniform: Little black dresses, quirky jackets and motorcycle boots. Someone has Mom's credit card.

Alums to brag about: Kevan Hall, Monique Lhuillier, Pamela Skaist-Levy, Randolph Duke, Magda Berliner, David Cardona and Karen Kane.

Hangout: The Golden Gopher

School merch: Tons of logo-laden totes, shirts, backpacks, some of it designed by students.

Catalog quote: "FIDM doesn't just prepare you for a job; it prepares you for a successful career."

Hazing: The serial all-nighters required for the third-year Debut Show.

Prom night: L.A. Fashion Gala, a graduate show and scholarship event, this year at Barker Hangar. $350 a ticket.

Extra credits: Annette Green Perfume Museum, and the FIDM Museum and Galleries, featuring the Academy Awards costume design exhibit.

Dubious distinction: Portions of Nancy Reagan's wardrobe are preserved in the FIDM museum.

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